Alebrijes or “spirit animals” are a major part of Dios de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). If you passed through the Poole Foyer last week, you would have seen these good and unselfish guides on the journey to the afterlife.
The fact that the alebrijes are not a terrifying representation of death as we often see in our own culture stems from the Mexican tendency to celebrate death. Of course, Dios de los Muertos is the main way the Mexican people honor and celebrate their ancestors.
Many people believe that Dios de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, however it actually originates in Oaxaca, Mexico and has not spread outside Mexico’s borders.
This year Señora Mitchell desired to share the tradition of Alebrijes with her Spanish Class. The altar in the foyer featured about thirty brightly painted toy animals, which are meant to represent the Alebrijes common in celebrations of Dios de los Muertos.
The activity itself was something she came up with this year, after she saw an opportunity to teach her students about something cultural. Being in her class myself I can say it was certainly a nice break from the preterite tense we were supposed to go over, and a fun way to learn more about another culture.
To paint the Alebrijes we watched several videos explaining them. The first was about the originator of the Alebrijes, Pablo Linares, who was born in 1906 and died in 1992. Later, Señora Mitchell told me even more about his story. According to her, during a high fever, Linares “Saw visions of a forest with strange creatures.” When he woke up, he decided that the creatures were spirit guides. He began to create the Alebrijes, making them scary and “not very attractive,” said Señora Mitchell, but over time they changed. All of them contained three elements: earth, water, and fire, and they were brightly colored and patterned. They looked fantastical.
The second video explained the usage of Alebrijes in the movie Coco. Did you know his dog, Dante, was an Alebrije?
We then started on our own Alebrijes. We were supposed to make them colorful, patterned, and interesting. Plus, wings were a must. In the end, while our artistic endeavors drew many curious onlookers from the hall, our Alebrijes were certainly not as intricate as Pablo Linares’.
After we painted the Alebrijes they were displayed in the foyer on the altar to the dead, which had three levels and was colorfully decorated. You may be interested to learn more about the altar. “You set up an altar to celebrate your relatives who are dead,” Senora Mitchell explained. “First, you put a picture of them. Then, the food and drink they prefer.”
In the end, while Dios de los Muertos came from Aztec Folklore it has evolved greatly over the centuries. One of those ways was through Alebrijes. While it will hopefully be a very long time until we die, maybe we’ll have the chance to meet a fantastical spirit guide to lead us to what comes next.